Chekhov on Sakhalin

These instances from a political pilgrimage are dedicated to fellow Ulster man of Letters Derek Mahon (to whom Heaney’s Seeing Things collection is dedicated); amongst their numerous contacts Heaney and Mahon shared, in 1977, an Arts Council tour entitled In Their Element;

The poem should be read in the context of the Troubles in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of H-Blocks at Long Kesh and hunger strikers. Heaney, a poet in the public eye, deplores repressive policies and has sympathy for causes; here he explores the reactions of the Russian author and physician Anton Chekhov, a fellow author faced with similar political circumstances, one who demonstrated the courage of his convictions but who faltered at the final moment.

So … faced with the challenges he has set himself Chekhov has taken a decision to honour ‘his debt to medicine’.

The respite offered by the steamer journey crossing the Pacific straits from the Russian Far East to Sakhalin offers Chekhov a moment to toast the generosity of friends back in Moscow first … cognac by the ocean in conscious anticipation of all he had travelled north to face. He looks back on moments in which to savour release (head swimming free asthe troikas/ Of Tyumin)on moments of self-understanding reflected on his itinerary: he saw a mile into himself like fresh water:/ Lake Baikal …

He acknowledges the ulcer in the mouth, the potential hypocrisy of enjoying the luxury of cognac given to him by the Moscow literati on what is a journey of conscience to witness hardship.At least as a shopkeeper’s son born, you might say, under the counter he recognised their generous donation, knew its worth.

An supreme brandy! The rich sonority of cantor in full throat delivered from alongside the Eastern Church symbolism ofthe iconostasis pales in comparison to the pleasure it affords his senses. To Chekhov the liquid reminds him of the sexual promise that is part of the opulent life-style he has left behind: like diamonds warming/ On some pert young cleavage in a salon.

A sudden chill in the air and the midnight sun bring him back to the reality of what is to come: the sound of the glass he smashes in Russian style ringing as clearly as the convicts chains/ That haunted him. This millstone was to weigh on his mind the summer long: In the months to come it rang on like the burden of his freedom (‘burden’ can refer both to a repeated ‘refrain’ and ‘weight of conscience’).

Both speaker and his fellow author agonise over the way to express in public the weight of evidence, be it in the gulags of 1890’s Sakhalin or on the streets of 1970’s Ulster: To find a form of words to denounce (To try for the right tone – not tract, not thesis) or to shirk moral responsibility and walk away from floggings.

Chekhov who (like Heaney) might have packed a real punch in his criticism (who thought to squeeze/ His slave’s blood out and waken the free man) did not have the courage to see it through meekly shadowing a convict guide through Sakhalin.

  • The preposition of the title is both ‘writing about’ as well ‘physically present on’;
  • under the counter: ‘bought or sold secretly and illegally’;for example,shopkeepers could bestow favours upon ‘friends’ by providing them with strictly rationed food-stuffs; Chekhov’s father ran a grocery store;
  • cantor: chief musician/ singer; iconostasis: the wall of icons separating the nave from the sanctuary; characteristic of Eastern Christian churches;
  • Chekhov on Sakhalin Heaney provides some background (including the significance of the brandy) on p.122 of the Faber collection; further to that
  • In 1890, Chekhov undertook an arduous journey (of several months and more than ten thousand kilometres from Moscow) by train, horse-drawn carriage, and river steamer to the far east of Russia and the katorga, or penal colony, on Sakhalin Island, north of Japan, where he spent three months;
  • Chekhov witnessed much on Sakhalin that shocked and angered him, including floggings, embezzlement of supplies, and forced prostitution of women. He wrote, “There were times I felt that I saw before me the extreme limits of man’s degradation.” He was particularly moved by the plight of the children living in the penal colony with their parents;
  • His findings were published in 1893 and 1894 as Ostrov Sakhalin (The Island of Sakhalin), a work of social science, not literature;
  • Tyumen: a city about one third of the distance from Moscow to Sakhalin
  • Baikal : the world’s largest freshwater lake about two thirds of the distance between Moscow and Sakhalin
  • Chekhov the physician:Chekhov continued to practise as a doctor throughout his career (medicine is ‘my lawful wife’ and literature ‘my mistress’);
  • in the light of current happenings, DOD asserts ‘it must have been impossible not to feel something like guilt at not being able to help alleviate the situation or contribute to its resolution. Heaney replied: This was during the time when Station Island was being written, and the ‘self-accusation’ of those days is everywhere in the sequence. Also in individual poems like Chekhov on Sakhalin. Because of my earlier brush with Mr Morrison on the train during the ‘dirty protests’(DOD p259); Heaney admits he didn’t follow up the Chekov logic and visit the prison; he was ‘away from it all … ‘at a physical remove, living in Dublin on holiday in France’;
  • MP asserts that Station Island will be about risking the backward look, enduring exposure ( ) Chekhov on Sakhalinrevealsthe old anxieties about doing the decent thing ( ) the poet is forced to scrutinise his conduct as an artist, (to assess his) engagement with the major questions about the relationship between art and action (should poetry engage in politics; is poetry active participation in history; does/ will it make any difference to Ireland); he concludes that in this poem the poet treads water (p185);
  • MPoutlines the Heaney dilemma, suggesting that both guilt and expiation are to be sensed when the poet selects another exemplary figure whose life and work embody ‘right words and right actions, artistic and moral integrity’( ) the artist was not only fulfilling a social rôle; he was also serving himself, performing ‘stations’ … to exorcise the past (ibid p.185-6);
  • seven quatrains; a loose rhyme pattern based on couplets;
  • ten-sentence construct; line length generally 9 or 10 syllables; the interplay between enjambed lines and in-line punctuation makes for varied ebb and flow in oral delivery;
  • vocabulary of alcohol effect from ‘swimming’ to ‘staggered’; ship metaphor: life compared with a boat, personal insights from staring into water;
  • vocabulary of eastern Church;
  • Chekhov’s medical references replaced by shared vocabulary of repression and pusillanimity: haunted … burden … walk away … shadowed;
  • his slave’s blood reflects Heaney’s inability actively to exploit the strength of poetry;
  • use of simile likens cognac to diamonds; local colour with minor geographical inaccuracies;
  • the music of the poem: fifteen principal assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: in Q1 alveolar plosive [d] and voiceless velar [k]; in Q2alveolar plosive [d]is paired withvoiceless [t]; ‘steamer’ introduces the sibilants of Q3 followed by return of voiceless velar [k]; [k] carries over into Q4 with nasals [m] [n] added; the bilabial [w] of Q5 introduces the ‘wow’ factor of fricative [v in] ‘cleavage’ and ‘inviolable’ – you may look but may not touch!
  • the sibilants of Q6 hiss and threaten; alveolar [t] ‘try’ [θ] ‘thesis’ and [ð]’that’ pepper the narrative into Q7 that also features sibilant variations [s] ‘thesis’ and ]ʃ] ‘Shadowed’;

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